Dealing With Decking

With federal rules changing, it's time to rethink decking materials.

By Michael Haigley

If you haven't heard, let me clue you in: Using the most popular pressure-treated lumber that resists insects and rot will soon be against the law. So if you're thinking about adding a deck, consider these choices.

Finish your deck by year's end. The federal rules prohibiting wood products treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) go into effect January 1, 2004. If you believe you can install CCA-treated wood safely, you have months to get the job done.

What constitutes safe use? While cutting and sanding CCA-treated wood, wear a dust mask, goggles, and gloves. Never burn or mulch it. And if your hands come in direct contact with it, wash thoroughly before eating. That goes especially for kids who play on CCA-treated playground equipment.

Use wood treated by newer, safer methods. As soon as the Environmental Protection Agency started talking about banning CCA-treated wood, companies began working on replacement processes. New products from the most familiar names in pressure-treated wood have popped up on the market. They are safer, friendlier to the environment, and-guess what-more expensive.

Some in the industry say the new processes cost more because they require more time and/or more of the treatment compounds to do the same job as CCA. Cynics, of course, say it costs more because companies can charge more without jeopardizing their niche at the market's more affordable end.

Go for naturally resistant exotics, such as mahogany. They're pricey but beautiful. The tightly grained woods remain smooth to bare feet. And endurance? In 30 years, I've never had to replace one mahogany plank.

Remember, you're buying only what you see. Builders assemble joists, stringers, and the rest of the understructure out of pressure-treated stock or cedar.

Choose synthetic composites. Manufactured from recycled wood or some synthetic materials, these products sidestep many of wood's vulnerabilities. They perform especially well in decks and boardwalks under intense sun that can warp wooden planking. Composites hold their shape and don't splinter, and they can last for decades with zero attention.

The drawback? Big initial investment. As with exotic woods, you won't need the high-priced material where you can't see it. But synthetic planks can't safely span the same distances as wood, so you'll probably give back some savings in understructure by having to build more of it. The value of composites is in the long haul, because costs end with installation. These structures will perform reliably without additional costs long after wood needs replacing.

In the end, consider your budget, how you want your deck to look, and the time you plan to care for it.

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